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Man's Best...Therapist? Exploring the Health Benefits of Animals

When we live with, care for, work with, and protect animals, we often find ourselves forming deep attachments to them. This special connection, known as the human-animal bond, is described by the American Veterinary Medical Association as a “mutual beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both.”

Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond

People are forming friendships with all creatures great and small in some rather unlikely places – zoos, hospitals, and even prisons. More than 90 percent of zookeepers, for example, report having a bond with one or more animals in their care. Sharing the company of birds helps older patients in skilled rehab facilities battle loneliness and depression while boosting morale. Providing aquariums full of fish for dementia patients promotes healthy eating habits, sociability, and relaxation. Prison programs are becoming increasingly popular, offering second chances to inmates and animals alike. From dogs and horses that need socialization to injured, sick, or orphaned wildlife, animals all of kinds are receiving comfort and care in the confinements of prison walls, and returning the favor by providing inmates with a purpose.

Research has only begun to uncover the myriad of psychological, physiological, and social benefits from human-animal interactions. Did you know that petting a dog, for instance, has been shown to reduce blood pressure in people – as well as in the pooches? In addition to helping us calm down, our critters can decrease our heart rate and cholesterol levels and boost our immune system. And forget fad diets and magic weight loss pills. When it comes to the battle of the bulge, nothing beats man’s best friend. A study by the National Institutes of Health revealed that those who walked their dogs on a regular basis were more active, less obese, and even more social. Animals promote healing in hospitalized children, aid adults coping with chronic health conditions such as cancer, and bring peace to those near the end of life in hospice care by alleviating anxiety and decreasing discomfort. As you can see, animals have an amazing ability to heal us throughout our lifespans:

  • Pets can help children develop motor skills, self-confidence, and empathy.

  • Children often see their pets as companions, even siblings. In withdrawn or shy children, sometimes a pet is the only companion.

  • Companion animals provide affection.

  • They promote opportunities to exercise, play, and socialize.

  • Pets allow us to love and nurture something – leading to enhanced self-esteem.

  • Companion animals are dependent on us, creating caregiving opportunities.

  • Pets can offer stability and support in difficult situations such as a divorce or move.

  • They can serve as an extension (eyes, ears, or legs) for those with physical impairments.

  • Pets can be a lifeline for people with terminal illnesses.

  • For the elderly especially, pets can provide a sense of purpose.

  • Companion animals provide something humans cannot — unconditional love.

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